‘Apocalypse Now’ — 30 years later

Posted by · 9:30 am · May 29th, 2009

Apocalypse NowIt was 30 years ago this summer I stumbled out of the old University Theater on Bloor Street in Toronto in shock, too dazed to speak, to stunned to make human contact. Finding a bench on the street I sat down and tried to collect my thoughts.

I was 20 years old, an acting student minoring in cinema, quite happy with my life though wondering if acting was for me. Going to movies alone was something I enjoyed, even though my girlfriend at the time did not care for this habit. My feelings were it allowed me to see the films she did not care to see, right? Though I was learning the method, it seemed movies were my first love, and not to perform in them. “Apocalypse Now” defined for me what I wanted to do with cinema and my life.

In this case I had just seen the first public Toronto screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s long awaited film, and emerging from the theater into the summer sun I knew I had been altered in some way, that this film had galvanized me and changed my life. At the time I had no idea that the film had made this impact, of course, but I knew deep in my gut that something extraordinary had just happened.

As a film junkie I was aware of the history of the film, and because it was Francis Ford Coppola, who had directed “The Godfather,” “The Conversation” and my favorite of all time, “The Godfather Part II,” I was more than a little anxious to see the film. Coppola could do no wrong in the 1970s, having won Academy Awards for writing “Patton” and co-writing ‘The Godfather.”  He received a Best Picture Oscar nomination for the latter and won the DGA award.  For the film’s 1974 sequel, he won his Oscar for directing.

That same year his film “The Conversation” was also a Best Picture nominee, a remarkable achievement for the young director. He then made the decision to head into the jungles of the Philippines to bring “Apocalypse Now,” a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” to the screen, hoping to entice Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson to take roles in the film. All declined. He eventually cast Marlon Brando as the certifiable Col. Kurtz and Harvey Keitel as Willard (who was fired a few days into shooting in favor of Martin Sheen).

The war in Vietnam fascinated me because soldiers had never seen anything quite like it; the best equipped nation in the world was struggling against an opponent who would do anything to win. The mind games the Viet Cong concocted were devastating to the American psyche. Cinema had just begun to explore the war in 1978 with Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” and Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (director Cimino being presented his Oscar, ironically enough, by Coppola himself).  I preferred the emotional truth of the former to the manifested fiction of the latter.

But back to that theater on Bloor Street and that kid on a bench collecting his thoughts.  I knew two things, the first being I was going to see the film again at the next screening, and two, I no longer wanted to be an actor.  Instead I wanted to write about film, to spread the word about this sort of work. Walking past me on the street were people who had not seen what I had just seen, and I felt the urge to grab them, sit them down and tell them about the impact Coppola’s work had just had on me and why they should see it.

I remember so clearly, walking into the screening, being handed a black program, which I have to this day, and entering the massive old theater. The lights went down.  Jungle sounds as the screen fades in on a jungle setting, trees gently blowing in the breeze. Suddenly, electronic sounds on the track, the beginnings of The Doors’ “The End” as the jungle suddenly bursts into flames.  It was impossible to look away from the screen the next two and a half hours. With Willard, we went on a journey not just into Vietnam, but into the mind of a soldier who has seen the impact of what he is doing, slowly driven mad.

Along the way we encounter many horrors that were part of the war, among them Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a surfer-loving maniac with a glint in his eye and the absolute confidence that nothing was ever going to happen to him in battle — it was where he was most at home. Watching Kilgore on the beach after his chopper attack on an unsuspecting village was something to behold. As bullets whistled past him, bombs exploded near him, he never flinches, never blinks. Was this the madness of Vietnam we had heard so much about?

Kilgore finally delivers the now immortal line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” one that proves to us his utter insanity, but it is his last line that I have never forgotten. With an almost regretful look, he tells Willard, “You know, someday this war’s gonna end,” and walks off camera to go create more carnage. The look on Willard’s face is worth more than any writer could ever put on paper.

speaking of Willard and Martin’s performance, what an extraordinary piece of acting that has gone under-appreciated over the years. Sheen’s performance is perhaps the most underrated male performance of the 1970s. It is through his eyes we see the story, and this is one screwed up dude to begin with, haunted by the faces of the men he has killed in his career, some of them “close enough to blow their last breath in [his] face.”  We first meet him slowly becoming unhinged in his hotel room, waiting for another mission (which means to assassinate someone), drinking, wildly at war with himself until he receives his mission: travel up river and eliminate Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Brando), a near legendary figure who has, according to top Army brass, gone insane in the jungles. “Terminate with extreme prejudice,” Willard is told.

One of the things I loved about the film was the mystery of Kurtz and Willard at the conclusion as they are locked in a curious dance of death from the moment they meet. Willard had not been the first sent to terminate Kurtz, just the first that Kurtz really had any respect for.

There was a great deal of controversy surrounding Brando’s performance, some critics thinking the actor coasted through the role, giving it nothing. My feelings are radically different.  No other American actor at that time in history could have given the role the depth, the emotion and haunting detachment from reality Brando did. No one. Watch the way he says, “I cried I wept,” at finding the pile of little arms that haunts his nightmares, that stunning realization that the Viet Cong were stronger than the Americans. For me, Brando, like the rest of the cast, is perfect.

Coppola’s film was both hallucinogenic and surrealistic, yet merged with an astonishing realism that stunned audiences.  They’d never seen anything like it before. At that point in film history, there was “Apocalypse Now” and everything else. There was a line in the film, that for me summed up the madness in Vietnam for the young men and women who fought that terrible war. Kurtz is raging into a microphone and Willard overhears him say, “They train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write fuck on the airplanes…because it’s obscene.”

So many images from the film are called up at an instant: Sheen’s meltdown in the hotel room ending with him sobbing naked on the floor as his nightmares take him over; Duvall’s brashly stalking the beach, fearless and seemingly unaware of the dangers around him; Chef (Frederic Forrest) meeting his end with a primitive spear; the tiger in the jungle; Willard rising, ghostlike from the swamp; the crazy photographer portrayed by Dennis Hopper; and finally, Kurtz, nothing like the man we have heard of, yet strangely everything we expect. Insane? Perhaps.  But also disgusted everything around him.

In Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Kurtz is wasted and thin, but Brando portrayed the character huge, having arrived to the set tipping the scale at 300 pounds, hardly the ripped soldier one would expect to emerge from the military. I liked the fact he had allowed himself to go (for the character) and that Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (the greatest) had to rethink their shots of the actor.  They had to show him in the shadows, often resembling a tragic Buddha. He needed to look otherworldly, and he did.

“Apocalypse Now” was nominated for eight Academy Awards (incredibly not including Best Actor for Martin), but it would lose the lion’s share to Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer.”  Today, 30 years later, of the two films, “Apocalypse Now” is clearly the more substantial work.  Coppola took a great risk.  His film was a work of art, an extraordinary sensory experience that allowed audiences to actually experience the war, to a degree. On Oscar night, “Apocalypse Now” won two awards, for Starraro’s breathtaking cinematography and Best Sound. Not even Robert Duvall would won in supporting for his napalm-loving Kilgore.

The film had been a work in progress with a long history.  The journey to release and Oscar night finally began at the Cannes Film Festival after two years of shooting and nearly a year of post-production.   George Lucas was once set to direct the film on 16mm as sort of a gonzo study of Vietnam not unlike “M*A*S*H” before Coppola decided to do it.  Production began in 1976 and is well-documented by Eleanor Coppola in her book “Notes” and the excellent documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” in which we see the many obstacles Coppola would overcome to make this extraordinary film.

A 10-minute standing ovation greeted the film at the fest, as audiences were stunned and wiped out by what they had seen, much like I would be two months later. The film shared the Palme d’Or with “The Tin Drum” and became front page news around the globe. I remember grabbing the Toronto dailies and seeing movie news on the front cover, and knowing in the pit of my gut that this thing was huge.

And yes I watched with great interest when Coppola re-cut the film and gave us “Apocalypse Now Redux” in 2001, which many people felt was better than the original cut. I believe the film was no greater nor any less than the original, in fact it was fascinating to see the French plantation sequence, but after seeing it I understand why it was cut. What I did like was seeing Martin Sheen as Willard smile after stealing Kilgore’s surf board. Somehow it humanized him to the men on the boat, but a greater film the second time around? I don’t think so.

In the years since there have likely been more realistic studies of Vietnam, such as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” but no film has captured the madness of that conflict, nor the horror, so completely. That final blood-choked whisper as Kurtz lays dying stays with you for all time because like him, by the end of the film, we too have seen the madness of war.

→ 9 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

9 responses so far

  • 1 5-29-2009 at 10:33 am

    McGuff said...

    John, thanks very much for this. I’m almost embarassed to admit I’d never seen the movie until very recently, and I saw the Redux instead, because it was the only one I could find. Glad I did in retrospect, if only to guess with a friend which scenes were cut from the original. My first guess? The French plantation scene.

    I was really amazed by the movie, perhaps not so much in the comfort of my house than you were (or I would have been) in a 1979 movie theatre. Sheen was really great, but I have to say my three favorite performances:

    3) Duvall, for all the reasons you mention. He’s really, besides Sheen in the opening scene, the first undeniably crazy person we meet. He won’t be the last.

    2) Hopper, who might be overacting a bit, but is both scary and funny at the same time, and I can’t think of many else that could pull it off. If I liked Duvall because he was the first crazy person we meet, I like Hopper because he’s the most crazy.

    1) And I hadn’t heard much about his performance, or him at all, but Sam Bottoms as Lance. I thought he was the most horrifying of them all, because there was a real linearity between how deep we got down the river and how crazy Lance got. By the end, of course, he’s just plain batshit crazy.

    From what we’ve heard about the effect that Vietnam had, I think Lance is the performance that best typifies it. But the film is loaded with good performances. A marvelous accomplishment.

  • 2 5-29-2009 at 10:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Wonderful piece, John, written with such passion and conviction — both of which I share when it comes to this extraordinary film. (It’s easily in my personal Top 10.)

    I first saw it when I was 12 years old, and was thoroughly blown away, but always regretted that TV was the only way I’d encountered it. So you can imagine my delight when “Redux” got a cinematic release. Miraculously enough, it even reached South Africa, playing a one-week engagement in the country’s biggest cinema.

    My brother and I made the trek out there one evening, only to find we were the only people in the entire (vast) theatre. One the one hand, I was incredibly sad that audiences couldn’t be bothered to turn up. On the other, sitting alone in the huge auditorium as we were pummeled with Coppola’s vision on a 90-foot screen was the most eerie and memorable filmgoing experience of my life.

  • 3 5-29-2009 at 12:11 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    What a great way to see the film Guy — lovers of them were there with you in spirit — I still get goosebumps watching parts of the picture, just overwhelming — one of the best ever made.

  • 4 5-29-2009 at 1:01 pm

    Chris said...

    I remember the first time I saw this movie. I wasn’t sure what to think (I saw the Redux one). I was incredibly disturbed yet intrigued. After much thought about it, I realized it is one of the best movies ever made and certainly one of the best directed movies ever. The only reason it didn’t win the 1979 Oscar is because The Deer Hunter won the year before. It’s nonsense that Kramer vs. Kramer won instead.

  • 5 5-29-2009 at 2:35 pm

    Dean said...

    Perfect recollection of this masterpiece. Bravo, John.

  • 6 5-29-2009 at 3:09 pm

    red_wine said...

    Ah, John we agree on this film. Great article! Even I saw it at a very impressionable age and remember I was just thoroughly taken in by the movie, the madness. At its conclusion, I felt I had seen something very powerful. The movie ages very well in memory and many of the striking images linger in you mind. I still have to try out the Redux version though.

  • 7 5-30-2009 at 1:47 pm

    Daniel said...

    Personally, I never cared for the film. Though this is one of your better pieces; very pure and true.

    What do you think of Aguirre, Foote?

  • 8 5-30-2009 at 3:43 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I should see it again in the near future. You inspired me to do so and also explained perfectly why I am still at the University studying film.

  • 9 4-12-2010 at 1:27 pm

    Jeff said...

    Very nice piece. I watched it tonight for the 10th or 11th time. Still a fantastic experience.
    Just one detail you got wrong, Chef doesn’t die from the spear, that was the captain of the boat. Chef gets decapitated by Kurtz later on.
    Yes, I’m a fanatic :-)